Learn English – “He said, X” vs. “X, he said” vs. “X, said he”


I’ve long wondered how in reported speech, what sort of change in nuance is produced by switching around the normal order of the subject (that is, the speaker) and the “speech-related” verb (such as say, ask, or mutter) used for simple declaration of whatever was said.

Assuming that QQQ below stands for any quoted speech, what — if any — subtle shifts of meaning are there between the following three formats?

  1. He said, “QQQ.”
  2. QQQ,” he said.
  3. QQQ,” said he.

In particular, in what situations is the “inverted” VS1 order of said he preferred over either or both of the two versions that use he said in the “normal” SV2 order?

Are these nothing more than three equal options that vary by individual writers’ personal tastes?

If not, then what rules exist for choosing between and distinguishing these three variants?

1.  VS means verb–subject, or with object, VSO or OVS.
2.  SV means subject–verb, or with object, SVO or OSV.

Best Answer

I think this question might be a better fit for Writers.SE, and wouldn’t be surprised if this gets migrated there. As Kris mentioned, this is more of a writing question than a language question.

Those he said / said she constructs are used in literature so that readers can discern which characters are talking. In that context, I think authors simply use whichever format interferes least, and flows best, with the dialogue.

I can’t recall any hard-and-fast rules for when to use one format over the other, but I might venture to make a few general assertions.

Your format #1 is often used when the author wants to let the reader hone in on who is speaking:

A woman in the back of the room interrupted, “What about the crisis in Europe?”

Formats #2 and #3 are used when the author would rather focus attention on the remarks themselves:

The two detectives surveyed the messy room. Obviously, Laura had put up a struggle, and a good one at that. The hardened veterans had seen plenty of staged crime scenes before, but this was the real thing. “She must’ve put up quite a struggle,” Dave said.

“Yes,” mumbled Sam, “she wasn’t going down without a fight.”

I also think that the inversion of format #3 is seldom used with pronouns, but not uncommon at all with proper names:

“It’s all over but the cryin’,” he said.
“Yes – all over but the cryin’,” echoed Paul.